Concrete action hits the Dublin quays


The Kings of Concrete festival has found an unlikely partner in the Tall Ships Festival, and this year, taking their cue from the Olympics, the organisers are hoping to leave something major behind when the urban party is over

Starting out as a one-day event six years ago and created by a troupe of musicians, carpenters and engineers, this year it is being held over four days in the “urban zone” of the Tall Ships Festival.

Kings of Concrete is now an established part of Irish skate culture, which has been evolving ever since Clive Rowen first opened Clive’s of Hill Street in Dublin in the mid-1980s, a modest shop considered the birthplace of Irish skating. Sixteen years later, Ramp’n’Rail skate park in Drumcondra, north Dublin, found itself at the epicentre of a skating boom, and was packed to the brim with fresh-faced boarders and rollerbladers, as well as an older group of seasoned amateurs.

For many, the best skateboarding took place in the city’s streets, where aspiring amateurs could spend an entire day grinding marble ledges or perfecting their kick-flips down stairwells. Regarded as a way of avoiding the hefty entrance fees demanded by indoor skate parks, street skating has also provided an alternative route for those that have an aversion to traditional sports such as rugby, soccer or GAA.

Anyone looking to make use of these spots – which were usually located outside banks, offices and car parks – would be well used to dealing with irate security guards who viewed the freesport as a nuisance. “People used to come from all over Europe to skate at the Bank of Ireland on Baggot Street,” says Mark Brew, one of the skaters behind Kings of Concrete.

By the middle of the last decade, anti-skating sentiment among office tenants and commercial landlords in Dublin and elsewhere had reached boiling point, causing councils across the country to “skate block” some of the best-loved street-skating locations. This involved soldering chunks of metal on top of ledges, handrails and benches, as well as installing jagged paving stones at the top of flights of stairs in order to obstruct the so-called “anti-social use of hard landscaping”.

“We noticed the city council were spending money skate-blocking the city and there was a failure to recognise the need for appropriate facilities,” says David Smith, the main organiser of Kings of Concrete. It wasn’t long before Smith and his cohorts began lobbying the authorities to build the much-needed infrastructure for young skaters, BMX riders and rollerbladers.

“We ran a campaign, which ended up with the government providing €2.1m to fund 21 skate parks around the country. That really was the beginning of the festival,” he says.

In 2006, the organisers were invited to curate an event that was the genesis of Kings of Concrete. There were initial teething problems, especially in relation to insurance cover. “It can be tricky because with a lot of the council-backed events, the structure wouldn’t be as leftfield as ours. We take health and safety very seriously, but to people that don’t know about skateboarding it might look much more dangerous than it is.”

With financial support from corporate sponsors and the local authority, Kings of Concrete has flourished. “The council have partially funded the latest event and they’ve been supporting us from day one, which we’re thankful for,” Smith says.

Tall Ships festival director Mary Weir was instrumental in helping Smith’s team develop their project, and believes events such as this one provide a unique opportunity to engage with a growing interest group of young people.

“Urban activity such as skateboarding, parkour and street art is a component of all cities,” Weir says. “Supporting Kings of Concrete meant we could provide committed and passionate individuals with the opportunity to showcase what this culture is all about.”

Despite the monetary boost, the festival has only broken even once. “It was easier to get money in the past and there was more cash out there,” Smith says. “But what’s been keeping us around is progression. You’ll never come down and see the same stuff twice and that’s a big part of it.”

This year, Kings of Concrete will leave its traditional home at Wood Quay to make its debut at Grand Canal Dock. “I’ve always loved this particular part of Dublin, where the city meets the water. It’s one of the few areas that they got right in the boom. However, it didn’t fully fulfil its potential. I live in the area, there’s a lack of community,” Smith says. “One thing we’re running this year is the Battle of the Block, where we pit apartment block against apartment block, to go out on a floating gladiator platform with inflatable jousting sticks.”

Outside Dublin, a handful of ambassadors keep the sport alive, lobbying local authorities and hosting events. Names that often crop up include Nicky O’Keefe of Olliewood in Cork, John Faherty in Mayo, and the Rampage team in Belfast.

Traditionally, skateboarding attracts a male-dominated crowd. As it stands, there are no professional (or prominent amateur) Irish women in the sport. Those doing their bit to narrow the gender divide abroad include Alexis Sablone of the US, Marta Nery of Portugal and the UK’s Lucy Adams, while Leticia Bufoni, Eliana Sosco and Jessica Florencio fly the flag for Brazil.

One interesting trend emerging among young women in Dublin is an interest in longboards. Considered to be the next best thing to surfing on land, this stretched version of the skateboard is used for gliding down smooth side streets, rather than for technical tricks.

“I used to skateboard in Brazil when I was really small, and longboarding started growing in my city. One of my friends said ‘go on, it will be fun’. So I started doing it and now it’s been a year and half,” says 18-year-old Thaina Bargmann from Goiânia, Brazil. Fellow Brazilian Flora Guerra (25), of Sao Paulo, was inspired to take it up because of her brothers, despite being told it wasn’t a “girly thing”.

When she moved to Ireland three years ago, she bought her first longboard and hasn’t looked back. “I thought the city was a perfect place for it. Phoenix Park is next to my house, so I could practise where there were no cars or hills,” says the founding member of the Dublin Longboard Crew.

Both Guerra and Bargmann are part of the Kings of Concrete team and when I meet them at Grand Canal Dock, they are covered in paint after assembling ramps for the festival, which they hope will encourage other young women to jump on a board. There is plenty in the festival to entertain the non-skater, too, with art exhibitions, 3D printing, secret cinema, break-dancing, waterslides, crazy golf on the canal, a giant robot and oversized arcade games.

The importance of an event’s legacy has become a pertinent issue this summer, causing many a heated debate in the UK about the possible benefits of the 2012 Olympic Games to London. With this in mind, the Kings of Concrete organisers want to leave behind a space for young children and local creatives to utilise once the party is over.

Using money raised through an internet campaign, Smith’s team took out a 13-month lease on the old print factory and hope to turn it into a fully functioning creative space and activity centre for young people. “After the festival we’ll be running free skill schools every Saturday for kids, to teach them things they may not learn in formal education,” Smith says, referring to grinds in subjects such as graffiti and break dance.

Although his main occupation is advertising, Smith harbours an ambition to go full time with Kings of Concrete at some point in the future.

“I’m unapologetic about making the shift towards making a living out of it,” he adds. “It’s a real labour of love.”

Kings of Concrete Three to see

Battle of the Block:Local residents will take on the role of gladiators and clash with their neighbours on a floating platform using inflatable jousting sticks.

Board Stiff:Wakeboarding, hippie jump, outdoor ramps, night rails and the King of Pop ollie contest, which will see one lucky winner receive a Michael Jackson-style white-glove trophy.

Nikon Capture Kings:Four teams have until 8pm on Sunday to produce a four- to five-minute film of the weekend’s festivities. The shorts will be played on a giant projection screen, and the winners get a new camera.

Kings of Concrete starts tomorrow and runs until Sunday.